The scientific community is not in agreement on whether GMOs are harmful to human health, but Vermont lawmakers say the bill is about consumers' "right to know" what is in their food.
"It's simply about information for consumers to make a decision," said Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, the bill's lead sponsor.
Sweeteners, oils, cereals and snack foods are often made from genetically engineered corn, soybeans and cotton. Vermont lawmakers fear genetically engineered ingredients could be used in more foods.
The majority of processed foods sold in the U.S. contain raw ingredients that are genetically modified to ward off pests and tolerate herbicides, according to federal regulators, and because labeling is not required consumers have no idea they are eating these genetically modified organisms.
Sen. Philip Baruth, D-Chittenden, said scientists are experimenting with arctic fish genes in strawberries right now.
"It's part fish. Now imagine that you are someone who is vegan, someone who is vegetarian, someone who is mindful of their food," Baruth said, pointing also to religious restrictions on food consumption.
"You have no way of knowing under the current system that your food is not being mixed without your knowledge," he said.
The Attorney General's Office expects to ultimately defend the legislation in court. Whether the bill violates constitutional protections against compelled speech, laws prohibiting adverse impacts on interstate commerce and rules prohibiting conflicts between state and federal law are among the legal questions the state could be forced to answer in court.
The bill sets up a $1.5 million special fund to defend the law. The money will come from private donations, state appropriations and from settlements awarded to the state. Violators of the law could face penalties as high as $1,000 per day for each product.
Lawmakers are confident the legislation can withstand constitutional challenges.
"Our goal was to make this as defensible as we possibly could," Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, told lawmakers. His committee unanimously supported the bill.
The state could spend about $1 million to successfully defend the bill, but risks losing $5 million or more if it fails, according to the Attorney General's Office.
Unlike other states' GMO policies that only take effect when others enact similar legislation, Vermont's bill would become law July 1, 2016. The House version would have had the law go into effect sooner if other states passed similar legislation, but Judiciary removed what some refer to as the "trigger clause."
"Relying on other states was not in our best interest," Sears said. "It was in our best interest to go forward and hope that other states would follow Vermont."
Some lawmakers say scientific evidence linking GMOs to adverse human health impacts is inconclusive.
"It's a scare tactic as far as I'm concerned," said Sen. Norm McAllister, R-Franklin, who uses GMO products on his farm. "I believe it's a lot of misinformation."
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, joined McAllister in voting against the bill.
"I haven't received any scientific information that GMOs are bad," Flory said. "I have received scientific information - as well as from the World Health Organization, AMA (American Medical Association), and various other organizations - stating that there is no indication at all that GMOs are harmful."
Animal products would be exempt from the labeling requirement. The bill asks the Attorney General's Office to report to lawmakers with a recommendation on whether to label dairy products containing GMOs.
A VTDigger/Castleton Polling Institute poll shows that 79 percent of Vermonters support GMO labeling.
The Senate on Wednesday will cast a final vote on the bill. If approved, it will go to a conference committee, where it will be reconciled with the House bill.